Nashville SC’s first game against Birmingham Legion was one of the team’s earliest games of the year, was back in May. Both teams are in a very different place by now.
Opponent: Birmingham Legion FC (10-11-6), 36 points, 10th place East. 44.08 ProjPts, 11th in USL East power ratings and 27th in combined-table Pure Power.
Time, Location: Tuesday, Sept. 17 • 7:00 p.m. CDT. • First Tennessee Park
Weather: 86ºF, 0% chance of rain, 41% humidity, 9 MPH NNE winds
Follow: USL Gametracker • @ClubCountryUSA • @NashvilleSC
Watch • Listen: MyTV30 locally or ESPN+ • 94.9 Game2 in English, 96.7 El Jefe en Español
The line: Nashville -227, draw +312, Birmingham +488
Computer Projection: Nashville 2.31, Birmingham 1.05
Etc.: Coverage from the previous game against Birmingham. Presser transcript and video with Gary Smith, Daniel Ríos, and Derrick Jones.
After a long stint of being safely outside the playoff picture, Birmingham had a strong run of form with an unbeaten July and August to sneak into the fringes. Though their loss to Saint Louis FC Friday evening took away any margin to drop points in the final stages of the season, the Legion still may get playoff soccer in the inaugural season for the club.
Settling in and getting used to each other have been a couple big keys for Birmingham. So too has been the addition of some talent.
“I think maybe a combination of things since we last met them, said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I know they were suffering with some injuries, so one or two of those bodies are back. I think they’ve been able to secure the likes of [JJ] Williams and [Brian] Wright up front, who have given them, a really good dimension. I think also, we’ve had this last year: you end up in that second half of the season feeling more comfortable about the group that you’re playing in, that you’re working with, some of the aspects of the game they they’ve been trying to – maybe Tommy [Soehn]’s been trying to enforce in the group, look like they’re more natural.
“They’ve adapted when they’ve needed to: they’ve played a 4-1-4-1 where they need to, the diamond has served them well when they’ve played that way. But just the natural feel of a group that have been together longer, and maybe some of the details of the systems they’re playing are starting to show their face.”
It’s worth noting that their injury picture now might be even worse than it was then: forward Chandler Hoffman, midfielders Edward Opoku and Daigo Kobayashi, and defender Femi Hollinger-Janzen are among the guys who have been out for the past three games (and in many instances longer: Hoffman’s injury was season-ending, for example).
Williams and Wright are loanees from the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution, respectively, so that’s pretty good talent to inject into the front line. Even more key to the turnaround, though (OK, “also key” might be more accurate) has been a defensive renaissance. Before the win streak started, they were about half a standard deviation below average in defensive performance. Since it began? About .60 better than average (and if you were to ignore Saturday’s two-goal clunker against Saint Louis, they’d be nearly .85 better than average – significantly better than Nashville’s season-long defensive performance).
That’s all despite a mediocre performance from the keepers: a save percentage of 64.9% from Matt Van Oekel isn’t bad (Trevor Spangenberg’s 52.9 very much is), but limiting shot volume has been a key here. Packing in with either the 4-1-4-1, a diamond midfield (both of which feature a single defensive midfielder) or even a 4-4-2 to get a second defensive midfielder out there has been important to their approach.
Defender Mathieu Laurent averages nearly five clearances per game and more than an interception per outing, It’s worth noting that Anderson Asiedu, who has been a lock starter at the single defensive midfield spot since joining from Atlanta United, will be suspended for yellow card accumulation – that could force the Legion into a second defensive midfielder on the pitch.
(Soehn subbed Eric Avila, who will be suspended a game with one more yellow, for more of the second half against Saint Louis. Williams is also on caution accumulation warning – it’ll be interesting to see how much of either of those guys we see, though with Indy up next, now might be the time to take the yellow, and get the suspension out of the way in that one before some winnable games come up).
We’ve already discussed Williams and Wright up top, and their emergence has allowed Prosper Kasim to almost exclusively play his more natural role as a No. 10/creator-type. He’s tied with Williams on a team-leading six goals (albeit in 11 more games played), but with just one assist on the year perhaps a little better creating for himself than his teammates – to be fair, with 44 key passes on the year, perhaps he’s a great creator and they just stink at converting.
The previous Legion game against Nashville was just a 1-0 margin, with the lone score a Daniel Ríos penalty (earned by Alan Winn). Even if Birmingham’s a bit better now, the lessons from the previous game can be useful.
“It was at the beginning of the season,” Ríos said. “We were chasing our rhythm, adapting to each other. We were a new team, getting to know each other. Now, it has to be a different game, because we are in a better rhythm. We know each other, we know how we play, and of course we need to go out there tomorrow to create opportunities and find the goals.”
The Boys in Gold
There’s major shakeup in the injury report:
|Michael Reed – out for season||Ankle|
Lancaster’s availability has been… well, at the very least, Nashville hasn’t been able to rely upon it all year. With Daniel Ríos’s return from a minor groin injury, and Ropapa Mensah’s rounding into form over the course of the year, it’s not the most damaging.
Indeed, Ríos’s return – in addition to a potential return from Derrick Jones, who escapes the injury report for the first time since breaking his ankle May 29 – is the big news of the day. Gary Smith wouldn’t guarantee that both are back, but it certainly sounds likely.
“We need to see how those guys are in the morning,” he said yesterday. “They’re both in a good place – far, far better than they were just maybe a week ago. Daniel, I think, was more of a precaution than anything: he’d had some issues in his groins, but there wasn’t anything dramatic there. The downtime has done him a world of good, and he’s back to a good place: looked sharp in training.
“Derrick’s progressed nicely. Physically, he’s in a much better place: his injury is fully healed, there’s no problems there. But it’s getting back into the sharpness and the swing of training every day, and his body being back to a professional soccer player rather than a professional socializer.”
Against a team like Birmingham that’s willing to bunker in (perhaps even more so without Asiedu) and try to hit on the counter, it makes sense for Nashville to go with a more offense-focused formation. Do I have faith that’s what we’ll actually see on the pitch? Results hazy, try again later. A single forward up top – when it’s a guy as strong as Ríos, especially – frees up more connection between the forward line and the midfield, and NSC doesn’t gain a ton defensively by adding the third centerback against an offensively questionable team.
Here’s my best guess:
Nashville SC often says the right things coachspeak-wise, but it’s important to note that they were pretty open yesterday about understanding the stakes of not just this game, but each of the final six, particularly the five at home.
“I think everyone needs to be reminded of what this final six games represents,” Smith said. “It really does offer up the opportunity further down the line to have an advantage in some way, shape, or form, for longer, possibly, than some of the other teams, and it depends where we finish. The other aspect of it is that we’ve got five out of six at home, and I think we’re all desperately keen to finish off the season on a really good note at home. Our away form’s been terrific. We’ve got this glut of games at home to finish up.”
“Yeah, I watch it every day, I look at it every day,” Jones added. “Because you know, some of the games, we’ve played more, then I watched it like almost every day.”
“You know, we have one away game and I think we play the last four or five games at home, so I think we’ll finish strong for sure.”
A win can push NSC temporarily into third position in the table (with more games played than anyone else in the top five, to be fair), and it’s the first in a stretch of must-win or should-win games if homefield advantage in the playoffs is to enter the picture.
Keys to the game
- Take Williams and Wright out of the game. This might be the justifiable reason to go with three centerbacks. At the same time… three of Williams’s six goals are headed, so certainly Birmingham is comfortable going with a cross-centric gameplan – the space on the wings given up by the 3-5-2 probably won’t be out of their wheelhouse.
- Get creation without Moloto in the lineup. On the negative side… Nashville has had trouble creating other than two primary sources itself: Lebo Moloto and crossing the ball. With the former unavailable, might they lean on the latter (in which case the wingback-oriented offense makes sense? I’ll bleed this one into…
- Dominate with the wingers. Birmingham’s fullbacks have seemed a bit wary to foul most of the year. Beating them with one-v-one dribbles should be an opportunity to get the ball into dangerous areas inside the box, and we’re all aware of Nashville’s ability to finish in those instances.
- Set pieces. Teams with meager offense want to score outside of the run of play. Don’t let this one do that.
Birmingham has rounded into a solid team, but so too has Nashville. Assuming the
- Daniel Ríos gets things started early, tapping home a pull-back cross from the edge of the six by Alan Winn.
- Ríos adds a second on a shot from distance, assisted by a longer ball from one of the centerbacks.
- Jones makes a substitute appearance around the 60th minute.
Nashville SC takes a 2-0 win.